How the world caught up with Wolfgang Tillmans
Source:theguardian Author:Sean O'Hagan Date: 2015-09-23 Size:
“Many artists try to predict what will look good forever,” Wolfgang Tillmans told the attentive audience at the preview for his show PCR……

The overlooked details of everyday life ... Watermelon still life, 2011, by Wolfgang Tillmans.

“Many artists try to predict what will look good forever,” Wolfgang Tillmans told the attentive audience at the preview for his show PCR, at the David Zwirner gallery in New York on Thursday. “It’s impossible. There is only the here and now.”

What might be called the hereness and nowness of things has been Tillmans’s abiding subject since he first exhibited casually intimate portraits of his friends back in the early 1990s. But his work of late has become ever more wide-rangingly democratic. Throughout, he has retained a recognisable style – a kind of studied non-style, in fact – that is now a signature of sorts, and his recent shows, big and sprawling but cohesive (at least to him) seem like experiments in narrative and association. He sees the gallery, as well as the studio, as a “laboratory of ideas.”

As always with Tillmans, it is hard to know how to start making sense of this experimentation. The show’s title, PCR, is an acronym for “polymerase chain reaction” (a term from molecular biology that refers to the process by which DNA is amplified to reveal the overall genetic identity of a person). The inference here, I suppose, is that each image shows his singular style but they are all related, however tangentially, to form a bigger picture.

Weed, 2014.

At PCR, portraits are hung alongside landscapes and huge abstractions (the traces of dust on processing paper) take their place beside equally vast studies of ordinary things, like a weed standing tall in his unkempt garden. Tillmans is drawn not so much to capturing the quotidian sublime, but to the ways photography can render the everyday luminous. The weed is a fine example: resplendent in its raggedy otherness, made more weed-like and more beautiful by his attentive eye.

Two thoughts came to mind as I wandered the various rooms. The first was Garry Winogrand’s statement: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” The second was Tillmans’s acknowledgment that “what is at work in every picture of mine is a mixture of actively doing something, encouraging a picture, while also letting it happen – letting chance play a role”.

Tillmans operates somewhere between these two, constantly playing with the received notion of what makes a photograph. Or, as he put it: “The camera is my tool to answer the question, can I do a picture of this?” Perhaps because of this (and the quotidian nature of much of his subject matter) Tillmans divides opinion. Some of his pictures, in their apparent casualness, do beg the question: so what? Two vast images of Sunset Boulevard taken from a moving car are a case in point, their scale amplifying the incandescent mundanity of Hollywood. That, of course, may be the point. Likewise the intimacy of his portraits of friends, their relaxed aura saying all that needs to be said about the relationship between the photographer and subject. Tillmans makes the pithy point that “a photograph always lies about what is in front of the camera, but never about what is behind it”.

La Palma, 2014.

In Arles in 2013, I was taken with his vast image of an Ethiopian market, which seemed as close to documentary as he had ever come, but oddly heightened in its merging of stillness and movement, muted colour and soft light. Here, there is a big picture of Glastonbury festival taken from behind the perimeter fence: tents on the campsite, marquees in the middle distance, the vast audience glimpsed behind trees as they witness Patti Smith, her face projected in close-up on twin screens either side of the stage, and, beyond, another vast hill of tents giving way to fields. It is an interestingly ordinary picture, not eerily real like so many epic digital works by the likes of Thomas Struth, Mitch Epstein or Andreas Gursky, where every detail, however distant, is supremely distinct. Instead, this has the feel of an epic snapshot. Tillmans seems blithely unconcerned with the things that might drive other photographers to distraction – the frame of the fence running horizontally across the image, for instance. It even occurred to me that the Glastonbury shot might just be here to offset a tiny formal portrait of Patti Smith in another room, making a statement about her sense of herself as a serious artist of literary lineage and her (possibly contradictory) rock stardom.

The Spectrum/Dagger, 2014.

The show is full of lateral connections, echoing Tillmans’s claim that every single image, however random, “is here for a reason”. They all add up to a worldview – or an impressionistic index of his experience. Thus, an image of the congealed juice of a watermelon staining a white china plate speaks of an almost reverential devotion to the overlooked details of everyday life, while a shot of male clubbers lost in music in one of the few remaining gay bars in St Petersburg is an evocation of inner reverie and a glimpse of a once-thriving gay culture now under threat from an increasingly repressive state.

Interestingly, there are images of activists – in New York, Berlin, Osaka and Santiago de Chile as well as St Petersburg – scattered throughout the show, often alongside portraits of Tillmans’s friends. Time passing, the great subtext of photography, is another theme here and one that seems to exercise his imagination as he ages. There’s a powerful portrait of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, taken in 2012, when he was 104, and, elsewhere, there are familiar faces from his earlier work, experience etched into their features now.

For Tillmans, the personal and the political have always been intertwined, and the way he makes and displays his images reflects a commitment to the democratic nature of his medium. That some of those images may appear startlingly uninteresting is almost besides the point. They all add up. And, what once seemed an almost profligate approach to image-making now seems, in our age of digital image overload, almost restrained. In a way, the world has caught up with Wolfgang Tillmans, but he has moved on, slowed down somewhat, but remained resolutely attentive to the almost invisible pulse of the everyday.

[Editor] 张艳